Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, stressed this week that using children to transport and sell class A drugs in county lines operations is a form of modern-day slavery. He said that the police and other agencies were not seeing it for what it is: the use of children and young people as commodities by criminal gangs. He said that more and more county lines were being discovered each day but there was often a lack of sympathy for the victims. He was responding to the HMIC report, “Stolen freedom: the policing response to modern slavery and human trafficking”.
The criminal exploitation of children to sell drugs in county lines operations is the next big grooming scandal. It has many similarities to grooming in the early child sexual exploitation cases in places such as Rotherham and Rochdale. The National Crime Agency says that 83% of police forces have reported activity in their areas, and I have been told by a well-informed police source that there could be up to 1,000 county lines operating from major cities throughout the country that have well-established criminal gangs, including London, Liverpool and Manchester.
Although the exploitation of children by organised crime to carry and sell drugs is not new, there is a huge and growing problem of children being groomed to supply class A drugs—crack cocaine and heroin—around the country. That usually involves a gang from an urban area expanding their operations by crossing one police force boundary, or more, over to more rural areas, setting up a secure base and using runners to conduct day-to-day dealing.
A county lines enterprise almost always involves the exploitation of vulnerable children and adults. As more and more county lines are set up, more and more children are being targeted and groomed to carry and supply drugs. For the criminal gangs, it is a very successful business: new markets bring more income, and using children and young people reduces the gang’s risk of detection. For the children and young people, it often ends in drug and alcohol addiction, violence and sexual and other exploitation. The children become criminals and the groomers and exploiters of other children. The extent of county lines is very difficult to map, as data are collected by various agencies and there is very little sharing of those data.
This week, I was invited by Greater Manchester police to help launch an excellent new campaign called Trapped, to raise awareness of how children and young people can get drawn into county lines. Children as young as 11 have been ferried from inner-city parts of Manchester to Blackpool and Barrow to sell drugs. Only this week, the police found a young boy in Blackpool who they said was relieved to be locked up and whose face was green, as he had been so badly beaten.
The Trapped campaign aims to raise awareness of all forms of criminal exploitation by gangs of young people and vulnerable adults. Key to its approach is working with schools, youth centres and housing and drugs services to prevent young people from getting embedded, or further embedded, in criminal gangs and to provide them with safe people to talk to.
Some children are vulnerable to being targeted because of chaotic family relationships; others because they are looked-after children. Some may be younger children whose older siblings have got caught up in drugs, while others may have parents who have become complicit in the use of their children by gangs, to help feed their own drug habit. Methods of recruiting children include offers of cash and goods, coercion with threats of kidnap and young people having to work to pay back a drug debt owed to a gang member.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, which is supported by the Children’s Society and Missing People. In March, we held a roundtable on county lines, taking evidence from victim’s parents, experts and agencies. May I thank the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for attending that roundtable? The report we produced made clear that children from all backgrounds are at risk of being drawn into county lines. Indeed, the parents who gave evidence did not meet the profile of a chaotic family. Their sons had become involved through friendships with other young people who had associations with gangs.
Pressure on young people is huge, and at the time of transition from childhood to adolescence, they are particularly vulnerable to pressure from peers. Young people can get drawn into what initially looks like a good offer, in terms of cash and lifestyle, but end up being trapped and coerced by some terrifying people.
Looked-after children in particular are targets for grooming by criminal gangs. Those placed miles away from their home areas can be especially vulnerable. There are additional difficulties involved in keeping children safe when they are placed far away. It is hard for social workers to give support from hundreds of miles away. It is concerning that since March 2012 there has been a 78% increase nationally in the number of children being placed in children’s homes outside their borough.
Parents whose children have been exploited expressed to our roundtable their despair at the response the system often gave to their pleas for help. I am concerned that the response of the safeguarding system is increasing the vulnerability of young people. The parent who is not supported will leave the child more vulnerable. Placing a child or young person in a children’s home that is being targeted by criminal gangs increases their vulnerability. Failing to assess risk in missing episodes appropriately will increase vulnerability.
There needs to be a more joined-up response from the National Crime Agency and at a regional and local police level. Criminal gangs are making millions from the exploitation and degradation of children, and they are responsible for countless beatings, stabbings and murder. We need to disrupt the grooming of vulnerable children at a very early stage, while as prosecuting senior gang members. Preventing children from getting into gangs in turn prevents many more victims. We need to consider the better use of child abduction warning notices, and the national referring mechanism needs to be better understood, as it can be used to identify children as victims of exploitation, which in turn makes it easier to prosecute exploiters—who are hiding behind the children—under trafficking laws. That will also prevent prosecution of the child.
The exploitation of children by criminal gangs is increasing, and it is shocking that the message that organised crime is getting is that, provided that they use children and young people, we are powerless to do anything about it. We need to find better ways to work together and use available resources, and a better safeguarding response for children. Children should be our priority—
Last week the Church of England launched the Clewer Initiative, which is aimed at tackling modern-day slavery and draws on excellent work pioneered by the Bishop of Derby. This three-year project has been designed to help dioceses detect instances of modern-day slavery in their midst and provide appropriate support for victims. There are many tools available in the local community to help end slavery, and the Church, which is present in all communities, has an inherent responsibility to help lead those efforts. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said:
“William Wilberforce convinced his generation that slavery was a sin. That belief has not changed. The sin lies in our ignorance to its existence around us.”
The Clewer Initiative takes its name from a group of sisters that was founded in 1852 to help marginalised women, but its legacy today will be to help address modern-day slavery. The campaign slogan is, “We See You”, and the aim at the heart of the initiative is to empower people like us to spot the signs of modern forms of slavery, which is happening all around us in our towns, cities and villages. Slaves can be right in the middle of the communities in which we live. We do not always know the signs and we are not sure about the right questions to ask. Modern slavery is a hidden crime, and for that reason we have to take seriously the injunction to know who our neighbour really is. Our neighbour could be a homeless man forced into work, or a girl kept in domestic servitude. Victims may be nearly invisible to us, so we have to develop sharper eyes in order to detect their needs, hence the campaign slogan, “We See You”.
The Clewer Initiative is designed to help dioceses develop strategies to detect slavery in their communities, by offering training and monitoring. Crucially, it gives people the correct contacts to reach out to if they spot signs of slavery and are worried that someone might be trapped in it. Nationally, the initiative involves developing a network of practitioners committed to sharing models of best practice and providing evidence-based data to resource the Church’s national engagement with statutory and non-statutory bodies. The project has taken best practice from Derby, and there are now 10 other participating dioceses: Bath and Wells, Chester, Durham, Guildford, Lichfield, Liverpool, Rochester, Portsmouth, Southwark, and Southwell and Nottingham. A further 14 dioceses are due to sign up later this year, and it is hoped that the Church of England’s 42 dioceses, or 12,000 parishes, will all become mobilised in the battle to eradicate modern slavery. Of course, as the landscape in each is so different, the approach and training will need to be contextualised, but there is no doubt that this approach can make a difference.
If we take the vanguard of this approach, the Bishop of Derby and his diocese—Bishop Alastair was on the Draft Modern Day Slavery Bill Committee, along with me and many other Members present—we see that the key is developing a strong working relationship with the key agencies: the police, the city council and others that can reach out and provide assistance to the victims. Within the Church, the Mothers Union has taken on the need to ensure supplies for victims by fundraising and producing emergency packs for them. There are many examples from the Clewer Initiative of each diocese taking the opportunity to help. I encourage every Member present and those who will read this debate to prompt their own diocese to find out what is happening in their locality.
Of course, none of this is to diminish the good work carried out across the country by secular non-governmental organisations in our community. I highlight the work of Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland, of which the Solihull club in my constituency is a member. It has undertaken online and face-to-face surveys to understand how much the public know about slavery and human trafficking and what their perceptions are. The survey seeks to help the UK modern slavery training delivery group to assess the level of public knowledge in order to help to combat it. As of last week, 3,700 online surveys had been completed and more than 4,400 paper surveys returned.
When we made our bid to the Backbench Business Committee last week, one of the issues I wanted to raise was child trafficking. I was shocked to read the report in The Times, which Baroness Butler-Sloss described as “very disturbing”, about the scores of vulnerable minors who fall back into the hands of traffickers. More than 150 Vietnamese minors have disappeared from care and foster homes since 2015, with 90 others going missing temporarily. It would seem that many go missing within two days of entering care. How can we use the word “care” if children go missing that rapidly? In that report in The Times, Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, expressed concern at the “frequency and speed” with which Vietnamese minors go missing and said that the case of a teenager taken from care not once but twice showed
“a lack of professionalism in the response to the plight of trafficking victims”.
I join the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and others who have spoken in impressing on the Government the need to go out of their way to tackle this terrible abuse of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in our society.